For W. Europe, Reykjavik marked the end of an era

It would be hard to exaggerate the shock wave Reykjavik sent through Western Europe. With one stroke - the setting of the 10-year goal of zero ballistic missiles - last month's superpower summit in Iceland threw into question Washington's entire postwar strategy of ensuring European security with an American nuclear umbrella. ``Reykjavik is already a turning point in history, in East-West relations and in alliance policy,'' comments a West German involved in formulating security policy for Bonn's center-right government. ``The healthy thing in Reykjavik is that we saw clearly what the Europeans must do. We saw that the superpowers are ready to negotiate over the heads of the Europeans, ready to call into question the entire strategy we have been operating on.''

More diplomatically, deputy parliamentary whip and conservative foreign-policy spokesman Volker R"uhe says, ``We need [to have] a real strategy discussion in the alliance and not just stumble'' from one deadline to the next in security policy.

What troubles these men - as it also does American NATO Commander Bernard Rogers and Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee - is the potential loss of Washington's nuclear guarantee for Western Europe. For four decades this nuclear guarantee has granted Europe its longest period of peace in this century by warning the Soviet adversary that if it ever uses its conventional superiority to overrun Western Europe, the NATO alliance will, as a last resort, escalate to nuclear weapons.

In line with this, American nuclear weapons for the European theater have been designed not only for nuclear ``deterrence'' (dissuading Moscow from ever using its theater nuclear weapons first, since the retaliation would be so terrible), but also for actual ``war-fighting'' should Western Europe start to lose a conventional war. Policy on intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) thus differs markedly from policy on American strategic, or intercontinental, nuclear weapons. The former are explicitly intended for ``first use'' in an emergency, while the latter are basically reserved for retaliatory use - if, for example, the Soviet Union ever responded to NATO theater nuclear use by firing strategic nuclear weapons directly at the United States.

The potential of such escalation, it is believed, makes irrational - and therefore deters - what might otherwise seem to be a rational Soviet option of conventional invasion of a weaker Europe.

This American willingness to risk Chicago to save Hamburg, as the shorthand phrase has it, was ``credible'' throughout the 1950s and early '60s. Chicago wasn't really endangered, since the US still had clear nuclear superiority over the Soviets - and threatened ``massive retaliation'' against the Soviet Union should Moscow overstep the line in Europe.

As the Soviet Union built up its own nuclear arsenal, however, it began looking riskier and riskier for Chicago, and some Europeans - especially France's Charles de Gaulle - began to doubt that the US really would use its nuclear weapons just for the sake of Europe. In the jargon, there was fear that American security and European security were becoming ``decoupled.''

To silence these doubts, NATO added in 1969 the intermediate level of theater nuclear weapons in a new policy of ``flexible [conventional or nuclear] response.'' The credibility of the nuclear umbrella was thus deemed to have been restored, since it was assumed that Moscow would prefer to keep any nuclear war limited to Europe and would not obliterate Chicago and invite reciprocal obliteration of Moscow.

The credibility of this policy remained high in the 1970s, since the West maintained theater nuclear superiority in Europe. The Soviet Union had more or less caught up with the US at the intercontinental nuclear level, but not yet at theater level. Any NATO escalation by first use of nuclear weapons would therefore have given NATO the advantage on the battlefield.

But then the Soviet Union caught up with the West in this category, too, and even shot ahead in the late 1970s and early 1980s, especially with the massive buildup of its 5,000-kilometer-range (3,100 miles) SS-20s. American computer simulations began showing that militarily NATO would no longer be better, but worse off, after both sides resorted to nuclear weapons. At this point the West sought to ``recouple'' the US and Europe by introducing into the European theater new Pershing 2 and cruise missiles that, for the first time since the 1960s, would be able to reach Soviet soil from West Germany and other NATO territory. The idea was that while Moscow might not care so much if its East European allies (and West Germany as the main battlefield) suffered the devastation of theater nuclear war, it would care a great deal if its own homeland were at risk, and it would be that much more reluctant ever to start a war.

As NATO deployed its new Euromissiles from 1983 on, General Rogers initiated the first overall review of NATO nuclear guidelines in two decades. In it he placed emphasis on using these new long-range INF forces right from the beginning of any escalation in order to move nuclear war as far east of West Germany as possible and to signal to Moscow that in any war its territory would not remain a privileged sanctuary. The study was completed this fall, and NATO's Nuclear Planning Group approved the new guidelines only last month.

By then it was something of a hollow gesture. The week before, President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had tentatively agreed to get rid of all Euromissiles of the 1,000- to 5,500-kilometer range that were to have been the centerpiece of the new NATO nuclear strategy. And - out of the blue and certainly without consulting their allies - they set the goal of eliminating all nuclear ballistic missiles within 10 years.

That goal might make military sense for America; indeed, Reagan administration hard-liners argue that it would neutralize Moscow's more numerous land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and enhance the value of America's more numerous bombers and cruise missiles. The idea certainly scares America's European allies, however. They are uncomfortable with zero INF to begin with (though they know they are stuck with this outcome, since NATO itself proposed this solution five years ago). And they are profoundly uneasy at the prospect of totally doing away as well with the shorter-range theater ballistic missiles that deter conventional war by targeting Eastern Europe and the western Soviet Union. They fear it could pull the rest of America's nuclear guarantee out from under Europe, leaving it vulnerable to Soviet conventional superiority - and dependent on NATO nuclear artillery and battlefield weapons that would only devastate Germany without having the range to deter the Soviet Union on its own soil.

The initial European reaction to Reykjavik was overdrawn, of course. Once the flush of the summit had worn off, the 10-year goal of zero ballistic missiles looked more Utopian than real. And on the INF level, as Mr. R"uhe says, ``People underestimate what [it] would mean for the Soviets to dismantle brand new, lovely SS-20 toys the generals have in their hands.... After all, they will have to dismantle many more than the West.''

Removal of the more than 1,100 Soviet SS-20 and other INF warheads and of NATO's 250-odd Pershing 2s and cruises would leave the Soviets with about 170 SS-23s, SS-22s, and SS-12s in the 500- to 1,000-kilometer range in the European theater, according to West German sources; it would leave NATO with 126 Pershing 1-As, according to the Military Balance of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). In this nuclear segment balance, the modernized Pershing 1-B will soon be available for the new NATO mission of putting Soviet territory at risk, even though it won't reach the lucrative targets that the Pershing 2 now can. Moreover, the French and British still have more than 160 independent nuclear warheads that can reach Moscow.

In the 150- to 500-kilometer range the Soviets have some 600 Scud missiles, as against NATO's 91 Lance rockets, according to the IISS.

Since the nuclear ratio that would remain after INF arms control is hardly one that would tempt the Soviets to invade Europe, the source of European alarm after Reykjavik clearly lies elsewhere. That source is, instead, the visceral realization among key European politicians and generals - probably for the first time - that the US will not forever guarantee European security with its nuclear weapons.

First in a three-part series. Next: The conventional balance in Europe.

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